When Lines Blur

You might be aware that it happens but you don’t think it’ll happen to you: You think you know a Guy and suddenly He might be someone else. Perhaps the One you’ve been praying to for month or year – or decades – slips off the mask and a new face appears. A new form, unfamiliar faces, unexpected attributes rise to the surface of Their presentation and you’re left feeling confused, betrayed, and upset.

Have the emotions been lies? Have the words They’ve spoken been falsehoods to lure you into believing something that wasn’t ever true? What of the promises made, the vows spoken, the ordeals undertaken, the faith kept? Can you trust anything They’ve said at all? Can you trust yourself anymore?

It happens. It happens more than you might expect. In fact, for polytheists this kind of categorical disruption is almost – but not quite – entirely  normal.

Except that it’s not, you know? The books don’t mention that the Gods can change. Our kindred leaders and religious guides don’t talk about the time that Anubis was Coyote was Aphrodite. We don’t swap stories at meetups about confused identities and the complex knotted mess of faith and vows and promises left in the wake of Their coming out. This experience is turned into a solitary ordeal endured quietly in the most private corners of our hearts and minds. This happens because not only have we individually been chastised for being too emotional, too devoted, too enthusiastic in our embrace of a divinity, but because we now have to admit that – on some level – we were wrong.

In that admission is an immense ocean of tumultuous accusation. We should have known better. We should have studied harder. We should have joined an orthodox group instead of striking out on our own with our cat spirits and faery guides and dream life lived Somewhere Else. We should have stopped watching anime in high school. We should have read a scholarly book or two. We should have listened to our elders – you know, the ones who never told us that anything could go wrong on the path to spiritual growth.

It’s a lie, you know. It’s all a lie.

I’ll tell you a truth: You’re not wrong.

You’re not wrong to experience the Gods changing shape. You’re not wrong to experience the blurring of lines, the erasure of titles, the disruption of names and familiar forms.

The lie is that this never happens. The lie is that you’re doing it wrong if it happens.

That’s not a lie I’m willing to perpetuate.

This kind of disruption happens for many, many, many reasons, not all of which are even able to be spoken aloud. Some of these reasons are for the Gods themselves to explain to you, in Their own words, in Their own time. Some of these reasons are for you to discover yourself as you experience the unpleasant growth that is forced during this period.

You’re not wrong to feel this way.

You’re not wrong to want to pitch the whole thing, to toss it in the dumpster in the alley out back, to fling the books out of the window of a moving car, to delete your blogs and Facebooks and emails and mailing list memberships. You’re not wrong to want to change your name.

There is no easy way out of this. Sorry/not sorry. This experience is the path teaching you something that you need to know. I can’t tell you what that thing is because there are lots of possible lessons to learn in this. It might be that you need to get to know yourself a whole lot better. It might be that you need to exercise that backbone you just grew. It might be that you need to let go of what you thought you know, what you trusted because someone else told you was true. It might be that you need to grow the truth for yourself and that can only happen through personal lived experience.

Names, forms, attributes – these things are mostly convenient for us. The Powers don’t need them in the same way we do; they have a very different relationship to Their names and forms and attributes than we do. However, They have a degree of ownership over these things that gives Them permission to move them about as They wish. The Powers reveal chosen names and forms and attributes as They wish, when and where and to whom They wish. This isn’t done necessarily to frustrate or hurt us. Usually it’s to teach us something very important about how we should – or could – relate to Them.

Though I said that many, many possible lessons might come from this experience, there is one that I feel is especially relevant to any polytheist, devotionally-identified or not, and that is to let Them be as They wish to be. If we accept that the Powers have wills and desires of Their own, then it follows that They would have preferences regarding how They are related to by us (collectively and individually). The Power in your life might be getting tired of living up to the role of wacky sidekick, stern uncle, or distant mother. They might wish to express Themselves on Their own terms and so are leading you to acknowledge different sides of Them through the adoption of unfamiliar guises and behaviors.

You might discover that you really were talking to an entirely different Power than you thought you were. You might also discover that They were really only just Themselves all along.

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Back into the stream

I’ve had to take a break from my regular practice for the past couple weeks due to sudden and uncontrollable health stuff. One of my prescriptions has always been a little side effect-y and it ramped up pretty dangerously. Whether due to dangerously low sodium levels, neurotoxicity, or throat spiders I started having dizzy spells of increased frequency and severity. I fell down twice. It took a lot of preparation to move twelve steps from the bedroom to the kitchen and often I couldn’t do that much. Getting to various altars, stepping over mess-related obstacles, playing with fire and incense, staying standing for prayers, etc. was simply not manageable. I gave myself a medical leave for the most part. (Though I rather mourn the changing nature of my job description, I don’t miss being hauled out to Work, rain, sleet, or neurotoxicity.)

Finding a care provider on short notice was also unexpectedly difficult but I did finally manage to find someone to provide medication management. There might be a high cost involved but this was one of those situations where waiting 6 weeks for an appointment with another provider was equally dangerous in an entirely different way. I’ve also been trying to get my taxes together and once again I’m outraged and depressed at the high cost of being self-employed. In one way, having a job where I work from home is an immense luxury and privilege; on the other, health stuff/disability prevents me from having the kind of 9 – 5 job that I’d otherwise be able to. (I do have a part time desk job where I play with digital collections at a library but the pay is criminally low and it’s less than part time, so no benefits.) So basically I’ve been rather too sick to stick with my regular practice and rather too busy to let myself feel bad about it.

At the present time I’m focused primarily on building and maintaining connections with several different Powers. Different days of the week are given to Santa Muerte, the Newcomer, the Ancestors, and Hela. I’m also ready to begin (re)connecting with various entities in my neighborhood. Our garden spirit needs some attention, particularly because hir garden will soon be partially paved. The spirits in the green space down the block are quite feral but not terribly fierce. I worry about harm coming to them due to various destructive activities the neighborhood addicts and assholes engaged in (these categories don’t necessarily overlap but destruction nonetheless results).

I want to reconnect with these nearby Powers in large part because I love them and want to experience their proximity and because I’m hoping to engage in a little give-and-receive assistance. I’m concerned about the physical property I live on and what might be happening to it. I’m worried that it’s going to be sold to a party that won’t care for it the way we (the residents) do. I’m worried that the current owner is going to disregard its inherent precious character (like by paving the garden). I’m worried that rising rent is going to force me to move or to adopt an even more restricted lifestyle.

I’m also worried about reckless development, “improvements” made without regard for the wights, human activity that harms and distresses our Good Neighbors, and about their general well-being. I care a great deal for the land spirits, all of them, and for my most immediate neighbors in particular.

Ideally, a relationship with land spirits and related spirits-of-place is one that supports and promotes the interests of all parties. My goal is to create this kind of ideal relationship, or come as close to it as I’m able. Like every other human, I require a lot of help and support; unlike many other humans, I don’t get a lot of this support from other people. Since I’m limited as to what I can do for myself (we all are to one degree or another), I rely on the Powers for aid. Since the Powers are also limited in what they can do, I do my best to cultivate many different mutually beneficial connections. And this is how I imagine my life when I think of how I would most like to live.

I am not separate from the community of spirits. I’m part of their company. We are all different, distinctive entities with our own needs, desires, ambitions, fears, and teleological trajectories. At this time, in this place, we’re all together. We all benefit from aid shared; we all increase through the sharing of resources, effort, and attention. We all grow through increased understanding.

Maybe this all sounds outrageously utopian but you know what? It’s entirely possible. I’ve achieved this kind of community building with spirits and Powers before. It’s not actually that difficult. Sure, you’ll find locations with really pissed off land spirits that want nothing to do with humanity, but you’ll also find wights who are quite interested in forming beneficial connections with us. After all, you’ll find plenty of people who are disdainful of humanity, dismissive of suffering, unwilling to share, angry at the prospect of helping or providing for others, and resentful at any trend towards equity. You’ll also find people who are very willing to engage in sharing and a dialogue towards understanding, compassion, empathy, and aid. Spirits, like people, have to be met where they are, on their own terms. I look forward to this work and I am humbled by its magnitude.

Presenting at Many Gods West

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be presenting some brand new material at Many Gods West, a polytheist religious conference taking place in Olympia, WA later this summer. It’s a real treat to have the opportunity to explore religion, spiritual practice, ritual, and magick with such a diverse group of presenters and attendees.

I’ll be presenting a session called “The Labor of Love: (Re)Valuating the Purpose of Devotional Practice”. It’s my hope that this material will help further a consideration of what purpose devotional practice actually serves in our greater religious traditions and how the development of increasingly-articulate forms of devotional engagement actually contributes to the growth and maturation of the traditions that practitioners are part of. Some of the static surrounding a conversation about devotional practice is the opinion that this work is indulgent, delusional, or simply selfish; I hope to counter these attitudes by highlighting some of the physical and metaphysical advantages that this practice yields. (And to speak to a concern that I imagine a few of you have: No, I don’t think that devotion is important because of its concrete, measurable, or observable outcomes. I do plan to mention that valuating the human emotional experience at all is a problematic and potentially reductionist endeavor.)

Click here if you’d like to take a look at line-up of presenters and rituals. The precise schedule of events is still being determined but this is what the weekend has in store (though there’ll also be some musical performances, too).

If you’d like to know more about the event itself, visit the Many Gods West homepage. Registration is still open and last I knew there were still rooms open at the hotel.

I love teaching and sharing information and conferences are a great place to do this. I also get to meet lots of people that I’d never have the chance to otherwise. I’m by nature pretty reclusive – which is good since I can’t really afford to go far or do much. Finicky health also keeps me close to home and that can make traveling complicated, too. Needless to say I’m a little nervous about the trip for these and other reasons but I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Pacific Northwest and I’m very happy for the chance to spend some time there.

If you’re a little nervous about the prospect of going to such an event and, like me, kind of a socially awkward kid, perhaps think about coming anyway. We can stand in the corner and fidget together while thinking about the pets we left at home. (My cat, you guys! I’m gonna really miss my cat!)

Seeking Together (Pagan Experience Project March wk3)

Though this week’s original prompt, “What do you seek from the divine?” has been switched to a prompt about the types of relationships shared with the divine, I’m actually choosing to write about the first one. I’m doing this because I think being honest about our motivations within relationship, whatever configuration that relationship might be, is part of what helps that relationship develop in a healthy and productive manner.

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the magico-religious theory that holds a specific action or petition is going to have an automatic result simply for having asked (aka, the cosmic vending machine theory), I am a fairly ends-oriented practitioner in many regards. That is, various religious and magical practices are engaged in with a particular desire in mind. These practices are chosen, in part, because they seem to offer what I hope to achieve and because the process seems compatible with my magical skill, my style of practice, the web of commitments I’m part of, and so forth. It’s the second part that sometimes gets left out in ends-oriented planning.

There’s the cliché story about the teen girl who wants to do a love spell and so heads off to the local witch shop with a shopping list culled from a love spell printed in a book. The proprietor suggests simply making an apple pie instead since all the same ingredients are used (and when I tell the story, I like to add that even if the protagonist is rejected, she still has consolation pie). The girl throws up her hands – that’s too much work! Baking is hard! Can’t I just do a spell for love instead? Yes, this story is a cliché and yes this actually does happen from time to time (witch shop proprietors can certainly tell you a few stories), but there’s more than one lesson to take away from this. First, of course, is the lesson that magick is work and takes effort and skill, just like baking a pie.

The second lesson in this story is about choosing between two paths that lead (ostensibly) to the same outcome. The teenager in the story might be quite terrible at baking and so knows that her efforts are likely to fail and alienate the object of her affection. The teen might also have also engaged in some personal magickal practice and already has a little skill built up. The point is that you have to choose the processes that are most compatible with your skills, aptitudes, experiences, and so forth.

Of course, if I were in this situation, I’d do both. I’d make a love pie and do a love spell. There’s nothing wrong with addressing a problem with multiple strategies to best leverage their respective advantages. This is why I meditate *and* cultivate a consciously more compassionate mindset. This is why I live quietly *and* petition Santa Muerte for a peaceful life. And you know what? The Powers are much more willing to lend a hand if you’re actually making an effort on your own. You will find that their blessings flow more freely and obviously when you make an accounting of what you’re going to do with those blessings.

Like some other magicians, I was never very good at money magick. I could magick up an extra $20 now and then but my success was sporadic and not really dependable. Then a while back I hit on the idea of actually saying what I wanted the money for. What exactly am I doing with the prosperity I’m asking to receive? What are my precise monetary goals? Once I started included this information in my petitions, the magick started working better. I still struggle financially and I’m frequently on a real knife edge of need but when the money flows, it flows – and it flows from me to many other ends that help further the Powers’ presence in this world.

Ultimately I guess I seek a partnership with the Divine that helps me become a better person. I seek to be more capable of helping others and serving the world because thereby do I serve Them. If they are present, here, now, in this world (and they are!), then expanding my efforts towards improving and serving this world is going to help Them. And it does.

But past that ultimate desire is something else, an arching vault of emotional resonance that keeps pulling me up and up. Relationship is not outcome. Relationship is not ends-oriented. Relationship is process, experience, the present moment. Losing sight of that is losing sight of the real power of sacred relationship. Relationship should not be forced into a value-oriented paradigm; we should not have to prove our emotional priorities by holding up the outcomes of our divine relationships. Once again: we should not have to prove our emotional priorities by holding up the outcomes of our divine relationships.

Sometimes – not frequently, but occasionally – there’s an effort in greater pagan and polytheist dialogue to make devotional relationship mean something. And this is fine because devotional relationships can and do have very positive outcomes – but that’s not really the point. It is, however, a place to start. Srila Prapupada replied to a question about the appropriateness of praying to Krishna for money by replying that any prayer was good prayer (I summarize; I can’t recall the precise quote. I believe it’s from a little book called Perfect Answers to Perfect Questions).

Faith is not necessarily automatic. We don’t generally offer our whole hearts to the divine without some indication that they’re there and that they are responsive to us. (There are of, course, major exceptions to this but we’ll set those aside for a moment.) This happens through an exchange of attention, gifts, and so forth. We seek their attention and blessing, which is recognized as evidence of their love and affection. We celebrate their power and presence, which in turn helps endear us to them. Eventually this exchange of energy (rather nicely typified by the rune Gebo) is less about any possible future outcome and more about a present saturated by sharing.

A relationship with the Gods generally begins with desire. We seek something – proximity, affection, refined awareness, knowledge, aid in magick, or the satisfaction of curiosity. Being honest about the fact of desire and trying to identify precisely what is desired is a good thing, a very good thing. Many of Them desire something of us – proximity, affection, refined awareness, knowledge, aid in magick, or the satisfaction of curiosity. Relationship helps achieve these and many, many other desired outcomes. But sooner or later, at some point, all parties of the relationship are participating in something much, much more.

http://thepaganexperience.com

Why We Need Love Goddesses

I’ve said plenty of times that the deities in my life are all chaos and death. Chaos n death, that’s the pattern.  It’s not a matter of me being especially chaotic or deadly, but something about the way I fit into the giant clockwork jigsaw of the universe makes me especially compatible with these Powers. We fit well together. It’s always been chaos n death.

Many polytheist and pagan types find themselves aligned with Powers that share very similar domains or characteristics. A person might find themselves surrounded by liminal characters, lots of gatekeepers and crossroads types; another might find frequent allies in watery deities, deities related to animals, or deities concerned with health and healing. And of course, some people find themselves surrounded by Love Goddesses(TM).

I never “got” love goddesses. (And yes, I know there are male-type Powers associated with love and the broad category of concerns that love goddesses are also concerned with, but this actually isn’t important to the point I’m going to be eventually making.) I didn’t understand these love emotions or the beauty, art, or luxury that typically went along with love. I knew it was important, I just didn’t understand it on a personal level. I didn’t see how these things related to me.

A lot of this was very likely because I had a rock-bottom opinion of myself. I have always thought of myself as a fundamentally unloveable person – despite any evidence to the contrary. Not that I wasn’t worthy of love; I just felt that at some point, eventually, without a doubt, the people who loved me would discover that underneath the good stuff was a whole lot of garbage that wasn’t worth the effort. I have done considerable work on this front but it is still a mental stumbling block that needs constantly negotiated.

I also didn’t like myself. I thought I was ugly. I thought I was unattractive. I thought that I was repellent to others. I thought that luxury and pleasure were a waste, that they were a pacifying comfort against the reality of entropy and pain. I thought beauty was a waste because everything crumbles to dust sooner or later. Freya-norse-mythology-21934274-300-427

Freya was the first Power to step in and start to change all this. She was my first ally, in a way. She was the first Power to just up and offer to help when I was struggling with the emerging realities of life as a spirit worker and maturing devotionalist. To my mind, She had nothing to gain from this. Her compassion went straight down into me and rattled my emotional basement like nothing else had. I started to understand, very vaguely, that love was beauty and that beauty was healing.

A couple years ago I came across a Power that shook me right down to the emotional basement all over again. At the time I had resumed some very old work with Kali (like, stuff that I had started when I was 16) and was feeling it struggle to resolve. It wasn’t the wrong work, but it wasn’t quite right on some level, either. I persisted, hoping it would level out. I was puzzling over a very direct encounter of Her in an unfamiliar form. I fell into the research rabbit hole and came out the other side staring into the eyes of Kamakhya.

Shakta theology and philosophy is distinctive in the context of subcontinent religious traditions and global religious traditions. Encountering a radically different form of Kali was not actually a problem in the way such a thing might be in a different tradition or context. It was merely unexpected. That Kamakhya was identified with the yoni Shakti pitha, with Sri Lalita, with Tripura Sundari, and with the very Earth Herself was more surprising.

Sri Lalita

Sri Lalita

Sri Lalita had fascinated me for a long time but I hadn’t really done much about it (chaos n death, remember? I was busy). In her hands She holds a noose and goad, two minuscule instruments capable of exerting force wildly disproportionate to their size; a goad is intended to move an elephant. One instrument propels while the other restrains. Her other two hands hold arrows made of flowers (or flowers used as arrows) and a bow made of sugarcane (or a stalk of sugarcane used as a bow). The sugarcane bow is said to be strung with a string of beads. Imagine!

 

 

 

I called this goddess of plenitude forms Sri Lalita Tripura Sundari Sodashi Kamakhya – because She was. She was all these things and all these things are the same entity (you know, more or less. That’s just how Shakta theology works). Through Her divine grace I learned about love. I learned about just how powerful love actually is and how it can accomplish things that other emotions simply cannot. Her grace accompanied me at every step as I dove deep back into the bhakti current that had nurtured me so long ago.  No longer content with redigesting the lessons I had absorbed as a teenager, I set about trying to learn the deeper truths of this path and She helped me gain a fuller understanding of the power of devotional practice. And this is finally the point I want to make.

Devotionalists need Love Goddesses(TM). We need the Powers associated with love, beauty, joy, compassion, and companionship. We need to have these things in our lives because our path is completely saturated in a very particular sort of love. Petitioning a beloved Power who’s already on our side *because they have chosen love and power and beauty and compassion as their domain* is one of the most effective and profound things you could ever do on this path.

Devotionalists need Love Deities. We are already in Their precious and sacred domain. They already care about us. They already love our relationships. They already love our love.

My work with Sri Kamakhya is done – at least, this stage of it is. I was going to gently put away Her blessed altar because there is another Power that I am resuming work with and I have used up the very last bit of available horizontal space currently accessible. My little heart broke. My cold nasty cynical Lokean heart just broke. My beautiful, compassionate, luminous Goddess – how could I remove her visage?

And there it was – permission. Permission to keep the altar in place, permission given by a Power who has no sentimentality, but who does have compassion. Even She has to acknowledge the most blessed patron of my spiritual love.

We need Love Deities, you guys. We already have them.

Coming to Compassion (Pagan Experience Project Feb. week 4; C is for…)

If you had told me many years ago that compassion would become a central part of my religious life, I might not have believed you. This was not a concept strongly present in any of the traditions that provided a foundation for my spiritual life; nor was it really central to any of the traditions I found myself exploring as my spiritual life unfolded.

I came to compassion like many other people do – as a direct result of profound personal suffering. This is perhaps the first thing to understand about compassion; it’s not a concept that others can tell you is valuable. You have to come to this realization on your own, through direct experience of the constellate emotions that reveal its boundary.

My spiritual life has been endlessly rich and possessed of intense, profound value. It has also been the source of a degree of suffering I didn’t imagine myself capable of enduring. Experiencing those heartbreaking depths was arguably necessary for growth but the months and years of saturated distress broke me. I very gradually came to understand – really understand – that I wasn’t alone in this suffering. What I was feeling wasn’t actually unique. It was personal, but it wasn’t unique to me. Everyone on earth, all sensate beings incarnate or not, also suffered with a pain and distress as deep and immediate as my own. The causes of their suffering might be known or unknown to me, might appear to me to be greater or lesser in effect than the causes of my own experience, but these things weren’t actually that important. What was important in that moment was the realization that I was not alone. Neither, for that matter, was anyone else.

This realization has unfolded to include many nuances and further realizations. For instance, my empathy and compassion are not dependent on my intellectual understanding of another’s distress; nor should they be. Knowing that my own distress and any resultant traumas are real is enough; after all, I am not alone in these experiences. Valuating the relative impact of another person’s experience of distress and suffering is also unimportant. These subjective experiences are difficult (or impossible) to objectively measure. No tick on a number line should determine how much I care. Though I am limited in material resources and in terms of personal resilience, and though I’m also limited by whether or not another person needs, desires, or even wants action motivated by compassion, none of these things diminish the reality we all experience.

I am not very literate in the subject of compassion and nor have I studied its philosophies very deeply. I’ve relied on my personal experiences and my observations to teach me what I need to know though eventually I need to delve a little deeper into the subject because I can’t always come up with answers on my own. There are questions I have that I might someday be able to figure out but masters and teachers and guides exist for a reason.

Though I strongly believe in the value of compassion and have found it to be of great practical use, I do still struggle with it. There are many circumstances when it seems like it simply doesn’t make any difference or that my mental and emotional energy would be better spent by getting angry or going on the offensive. Sometimes I feel like “having compassion” is used as a mask for bland platitudes and meaningless sentiment. Sometimes being told that someone has compassion for me is cruel. “Do you?” I feel like asking, “Do you really suffer with me in this matter? Or are you simply trying to tell me that you pity me, that you feel sorry for me, that you believe I deserve to feel anguish because of the choices I’ve made?” Compassion is not a simple subject and its expressions are immense and complex.

I find myself wary and weary of the rhetoric of violence. This is only one possible frame for categorical tensions, whether these tensions exist between the groups people align themselves with or between other axes of alignment. This might be strange coming from someone with a Heathen bent. I did after all spend a number of  years trying to fit into that community, I worship Gods who come from that context, and it is the tradition (rather broadly speaking) that taught me my spirit work. It’s also a tradition rather known for celebrating the trappings of violent conflict. Though I understand that these things are frequently celebrated in a historical context – modern Heathens celebrate the bravery and valor of our personal and collective ancestors – perhaps other parts of this tradition’s historic heritage are also worthy of celebration. It’s possible to be known as a tradition of explorers, artists, farmers, and yes, even householders. These are things best served by diplomacy, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

Arriving at a point where I value and celebrate compassion by no means indicates that I’m “good” at it. I’m not. I’m repeatedly forced to confront the trauma I’ve endured reflected back in the experiences of others. I respond by withdrawing and internalizing my pain. I hold this value close to my heart and will still choose actions that lack its mediating influence. I’m still mean, I still choose the lower road, I still take actions that I’d counsel others not to take. I still step into the sphere of others’ emotional lives and feel offense on their behalf; this leads me to dislike and mistrust others when I have no personal reason for doing so and the result is the loss of a compassionate stance.

I am heartened that I have endless opportunities to practice compassion in all its manifold expressions. This, like many other things in my life, is a sadhana, a spiritual practice undertaken for the refinement of the self in this and other worlds. Sadhana pares down the bullshit through discipline and reveals its strength with repeated application. Compassion is a powerful force and it drives an evolution that is reshaping me to the very core.

http://thepaganexperience.com

My Life’s Top Priority

Almost fifteen years ago I gave oaths of loyalty, service, and affection to My Lord. This undertaking had more steps than I anticipated. When I first decided, “Yes, this is something I’m going to do”, He stopped me. My heart wasn’t in the right place. My motivation wasn’t right.

But isn’t this right? I asked. This is what you wanted from me. I’m just doing what you asked me to.

That was the problem and that was my very first lesson.

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